Wells is always someone I remember as the writer who named a mystery novel Raspberry Jam. Good taste in jam flavours, but odd at title naming nevertheless. Then again since she managed to write 82 mystery novels between 1909 and 1942, I think she can probably be forgiven for running out of more conventional titles to use. Wells was inspired to write mystery fiction, having read Green’s That Affair Next Door (1897), (a very important book in the making of the genre), and during her own life time her work was popular and lucrative. This and other fascinating nuggets of information can be found in the introduction to this reprint, which has been written by the highly esteemed Curtis Evans.
It doesn’t take too many pages for this bibliomystery to arrive at the bookshop, (which incidentally is a fictionalisation of a real life basement bookshop that Wells loved). Philip Balfour and his librarian have broken into John Sewell’s bookshop, on the hunt for some specific titles. But then the lights go out, the librarian is chloroformed and when he wakes up he finds his employer dead on the floor with a skewer in the heart… Of course when he has to explain all of this to the police, they are somewhat sceptical of his story and his name soon joins the top of their suspects list. It doesn’t help that he was madly in love with Balfour’s wife and that his feelings were returned. It also doesn’t help that a very expensive and rare title has been stolen from Sewell’s shop. The body count doesn’t stop there either and the reader also has an unusual locked bathroom murder to contend with as well. Good job Fleming Stone, private investigator is called in to solve the case.
A bit like Wells’ sometimes taste in book titles, the plot to this tale is unusual to say the least. It is full of varied incidences to keep the reader engaged and puzzled as to how things will turn out. We have anonymous notes, ransom notes, we even have … wait for it… book kidnapping! Whilst the identity of the culprit is quite easy to spot after a while, the motives for their deeds and even the way they are finally caught, are indeed strange, (need to find a new word for unusual after all). Freeman Wills Crofts was the king of alibis, John Dickson Carr was emperor of the locked room mystery and for me Carolyn Wells is Queen of Oddness!
Whilst her plotting choices are very bold, (after all she selects a very dramatic conclusion to the case), I think her writing style does hold some subtleties. For instance in the opening line we read of the victim that he ‘was a good man. Also, he was a good looking, good-humoured and good to his wife. That is. When he had his own way, which was practically always.’ As to the suspects you do have to laugh at their initial approach to not cooperating with the police. Questions about what they were doing are seen as questions besmirching their personal honour. Sewell equally doesn’t want to reveal the name of the book stolen, which does beg the question of how he expects the police to find it. Eventually we reach this line: ‘We are keeping nothing back from the police […] but we don’t want their men who are still here to get information ahead of time.’ Thankfully Fleming Stone overrides such sentiments and for the majority of the book the suspects behave with a little more common sense. The book collecting milieu is wonderfully recreated in the book, making you feel Wells used her own experiences as a book collector to influence it.
So all in all quite a good read and most definitely a different one. Ideal for those who love bookshop themed mysteries and for those who want to sample something off the beaten track when it comes to mystery fiction, yet not so off the beaten track that it stops resembling a mystery novel at all. For all the plot events, Wells keeps the narrative together and despite the outlandishness of some of the incidences, the story does not begun unstuck. No mean feat.
This reprint also includes the short story, ‘The Shakespeare Title-Page Mystery’, which was originally published in 1940 in The Dolphin.
Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)